In hindsight, it seems inevitable that the “Sensitivity Readers and Free Expression” panel at Winter Institute 13 moderated by Christopher Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, would ignite a spirited discussion among proponents and critics of sensitivity readers that spilled out into the convention center’s corridor afterwards and later that day, in Memphis hotel bars and restaurants, as well as on social media.
After all, ever since the New York Times published a front-page story on “sensitivity readers,” editors who read manuscripts sent them by publishers for content, particularly regarding the depiction of characters of color or diverse backgrounds, the issue has been a bone of contention between those who describe such vetting of manuscripts as censorship, and those who argue that diverse books should be vetted for authenticity so as to not perpetuate negative stereotypes.
The issue was magnified at WI13, when, earlier that same morning, breakfast keynote speaker Junot Díaz delivered a blistering critique of the publishing industry, denouncing the primarily white literary agents, editors, and sales forces who pay only lip service to diversity and do not actually strive to publish and promote books with diverse characters and themes. Díaz demanded that the industry “stop talking about diversity and start decolonizing our shelves,” noting in an aside that “white folks writing about people of color doesn’t qualify as diversity: it’s part of another tradition called colonialism.”
“I stopped being nice about it; that doesn’t get the conversation going,” explained panelist Dhonielle Clayton, who is an African-American author and editor, representing the We Need Diverse Books organization that has been advocating since 2014 for more diverse books written by and about people of color. Clayton, who describes herself as a “cultural expert” in addition to her literary bona fides, has been hired by several publishers to be a “sensitivity reader” of manuscripts and was quoted in the New York Times story on the issue. (Clayton also recently wrote a PW Soapbox on the topic.)
“If you want to do it right and tell the truth, then you need to hear from people like me,” she said during the panel, citing the controversy surrounding A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a 2016 picture book from Scholastic that came under fire for its offensive and inaccurate presentation of slavery, which included images of smiling and happy slaves; it was subsequently withdrawn by the publisher.
The claims that “sensitivity readers” are censoring books they find objectionable “is willful ignorance towards the topic,” Clayton said, criticizing such accusations as a “way to derail the conversation” on racial stereotypes.
“The real issue here, is that diverse children don’t see themselves in books,” Clayton said. “And more people are writing about African-Americans who are not African-Americans. [Such writers and their readers] look to marginalized people to teach lessons to the non-marginalized, like Birthday Cake for George Washington teaching white children about slavery. Thank you for marching with us, but we need to lift up people of color to write our stories in an authentic way.”
Free Expression Is ‘Lifeblood of Bookselling’
Bookseller Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney, Doak, and Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Me., as well as a blogger for PW, disagreed, saying that “the free expression of ideas is the lifeblood of bookselling” and that the fear of being publicly castigated on the grounds of perpetuating stereotypes in one’s work is having a negative impact upon the free flow of ideas in book industry, particularly in the children’s book world.
There is a fear among writers, Brechner said, of “having their project torpedoed, fear of being called out and shamed on social media, fear of having their careers ruined. The lever which allows fear to overturn free speech is harm, the imputing of harm to books and ideas,” he added, listing the “five types of harm” as being exclusion/erasure; simple esthetic (or “reading sentences I can’t unread”); personal bias; deception; and triggers. “Suppression is always justified by remedying harm,” he said. “It’s our task to engage in robust critical exchange, not suppress it.”
Brechner suggested, instead, that the publishing industry should let the market decide upon a book’s merits, or lack thereof, and that booksellers should do their best to put “these great books” that are written by diverse authors that might otherwise be overlooked into the hands of readers.
“Books have the right to succeed or fail in a critical marketplace, not through a fear of suppression,” he said. “Books have a right to fail, to be bad,” Brechner said, noting that booksellers “have a lot of influence,” and advocated that they share their opinions about possibly problematic books with one another, as well as with customers. But, he added, readers, including booksellers, have to decide for themselves what is worth their while to read, and what is not.
“Books are vast interior spaces and no one can know what complex connection a reader forms within them.” Brechner said, explaining that readers respond to the books they read through the prisms of their unique life experiences and sensibilities, so that what may offend one reader may not offend another from a similar background.
Clayton countered Brechner’s arguments by declaring that, due to the industry “gatekeepers” being primarily white, oftentimes, such books as A Birthday Cake for George Washington and The Black Witch (a YA fantasy novel that came under fire for content that some considered racist, sexist, and homophobic) go unchallenged for false and offensive content until they are released into the marketplace. Even then, because many traditional book reviewers are part of the cultural elite, books with objectionable content that reinforce negative stereotypes may still find their way into children’s hands.
“We need to look at the gatekeepers,” she said. “Each layer is so homogenous. They all look the same. It’s people from one background deciding what books kids in this country read. People don’t want to talk about this: it’s about power.”
The third panelist, New York Law School professor and former ACLU head Nadine Strossen, tried to find a middle ground between the other two speakers. “I oppose censorship,” she said, adding that, at the same time, she also “enthusiastically” supports “counter speech”—against hate speech, false news, and stereotypes. “Just because we have free speech rights doesn’t mean we don’t have to practice self-restraint too.”
Maintaining that she supports the concept of sensitivity readers, although she considers such a term to be vague, Strossen said, “At its essence, it ensures more authentic writing,” but “the devil is in the details—how it’s implemented.”
One thing Brechner and Clayton, and even most of the 100 people in the audience could agree upon: the term “sensitivity readers” is, in one audience member’s word, a “condescending” term.
“I agree—I hate that term,” Clayton said. “I’m just an editor, I’m reading for a certain thing. I’m not being ‘sensitive.’ I’m, frankly, sick of that term. It minimizes exactly what it is—being an editor.”
An earlier version of this story misidentified panelist Nadine Strossen's professional affiliation: she is a professor of law at New York Law School, not NYU.